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Credit: Seyoung An

I’ve decided I’m going to boycott my 22nd birthday.

“If you don’t celebrate it,” I said to my friend Aliki, “did it really happen?”

Aliki knows about my aversion to growing up. We spent the summer interning in New York together. On weekends, we got together to drink cheap wine and bemoan the price of fruit in the city. By the end of the summer, we had coined the phrase: “In New York, everything hurts.”

I was there that summer to write. Technically, there was an internship involved too, but my move was fueled mainly by romantic ideas about being a “starving artist.” I imagined subsisting solely on black coffee and Microsoft Word, reading books while lounging on the grass of Central Park, falling in love with a poet sitting in a corner of an obscure cafe. 

Where would this money be coming from? My parents wanted to know. I didn’t have an answer for them, but I was adamant about New York because I thought that’s what aspiring writers did: They moved to New York and wrote. It seemed simple.

Then I actually moved there, and suddenly I was budgeting in a city where I made $13 an hour (before taxes) and blueberries cost $8 a carton. Shockingly, “starving” wasn’t so sexy after all.

My parents warned me about this before my move. In the months preceding it, we fought about the practicality of my choices — fights we’re revisiting now as I struggle to find a full-time job. I’m the “dreamer” in the family; a humanities major surrounded by a sea of business and computer science degrees. My father’s friend once told him I should go “get a real degree” since “English didn’t count.”

People say this to me a lot, in a variety of ways. Relatives at holiday dinners peer at me over turkey. High school classmates tilt their head and adjust their tone. Men at bars scoff over their sweating glasses of beer. “So what do you want to do with that?” They ask. I’ve always had an answer, until now, when I actually need one.

At the cusp of 22 — an arbitrary age I’ve decided signals true adulthood — I don’t have a solid plan. In high school, it was all about getting into a “good” university. Now that graduation looms closer, a myriad of options branch out, but choice does not comfort me at all. Instead, I’m terrified of choosing, and of failing. Of disappointing my parents, and of disappointing myself. Of underachieving, and of selling out.

I used to have fierce arguments with my parents, recoiling whenever they mentioned the words: “practical,” “bills,” or “career advancement.” I said things like: “Writing is the only thing that makes me happy,” and “I don’t know who I am without my writing,” which often prompted laughter from them.

As first-generation immigrants, my parents didn’t have the same opportunities they’ve given me. In college, while I worry about ending up in a job that makes me feel empty, my parents worried about balancing two jobs and their schoolwork. They didn’t have time to worry about happiness when they were just trying to stay afloat in a city that threatened to cannibalize them at any moment.

“Why did you become an accounting major if you dislike accounting so much?” I asked my mother after arguing about my post-graduation plans.

She was quiet for a long while before she answered. “I never assumed it was a choice.” She looked at my father. “For your dad and I, it never was.”

My parents built a life together based on a common goal of finding security. That has been their gift to me: They suffered so I can assume. Seeing me chase career options that seem like dead ends must frighten my parents in the same way “settling” frightens me.

“I wish you could just support my writing more. I wish you could see how serious I am about it,” I said to my dad a few weeks before leaving for New York. 

“I don’t want you to suffer,” my father told me. “After everything I’ve lived through, how could I want my only daughter to suffer the way your mother and I did?”

I’m ashamed to admit it took me until that summer in New York to understand what he was trying to convey because I’ve known about the history that underlies his viewpoint for years. My father grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China. By 17, he was shipped off to a labor camp, where he worked 12-hour days in a field, knee-deep in leech-infested water. His legs still bear crisscrossing lines of scar tissue, a tangible reminder of what he left behind when he emigrated to New York for college. I thought I knew all there is to know about “following my dreams,” but what did I know about sacrifice?

I’m making an active effort to see from my parents’ perspective. I’ve been creating spreadsheets, budgeting using the average salary in the career fields I’m interested in. Despite my meticulous formatting, the numbers reflect deficits so large my head spins. Looking at New York rent prices makes me feel like I’m trying to breathe underwater. How does anyone afford anything in the real world? Isn’t this the question my parents have been asking me all along?

I don’t know how to begin describing how hopeless I feel envisioning a future where I’m not writing, but I’d also like to be able to afford health insurance. Central heating would be nice too. And the occasional carton of blueberries. 

Mostly, I’m starting to suspect my passion for writing and my desire for stability might not actually be mutually exclusive. Write full-time after graduation or never write at all is a melodramatic binary.

There’s this idea you have to “pay your dues” in writing, that if you’re serious about writing, you’re willing to suffer for it. I admire the people that have followed this maxim, but I also see the fault lines lurking beneath the surface. It’s romantic to think about suffering, but I question how realistic that is.

Phil Whitehouse // CC BY 2.0

My writing will always be inextricably intertwined with my identity, but I’ve stopped trying to pigeonhole myself as just a writer. It seems reductive to think of writers as vagabonds rotating through a quirky succession of unbearable “day jobs” solely to fund their true calling. Can’t I like my career and still want to write? I’ve always thought my best stories were informed by events in my life, so why am I so scared to let myself live more, develop a better rounded story bank?

Agatha Christie was a pharmacy assistant before she published, and she used her medical knowledge to inform her stories. Anton Chekhov’s experiences as a doctor exposed him to class disparity in Russian society, inspiring some of his best short stories. George Saunders was first a geophysicist, and has said that any claims “to originality in [his] writing is really just the result of [his] odd background.” 

I don’t know what happens after graduation, but I’m shedding the “either/or” mentality. I’ll turn 22 in February, and I hope I’ll have some clarity. In the interim, I’ll keep writing, and with each coming birthday, I will keep amassing experiences that may someday find their way into my writing. 

SABRINA QIAO is a College senior from Lansdale, Pa. studying English. Her email address is sabrinaq@sas.upenn.edu.

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